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Boulder County religious organizations adapt to coronavirus despite ‘swimming in uncharted waters’

  • Deacon David Luksch, left, Father Mark Kovacik, and Father Jose...

    Deacon David Luksch, left, Father Mark Kovacik, and Father Jose Chicas, do a walk through of the live streaming they did that Thursday evening. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Father Jose Chicas listens to a confession on April 10,...

    Father Jose Chicas listens to a confession on April 10, 2020 in the parking lot of the church and catholic school. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Deacon David Luksch, left, Father Jose Chicas, Father Mark Kovacik,...

    Deacon David Luksch, left, Father Jose Chicas, Father Mark Kovacik, and Michelle Anderson, do a walk through of the live streaming they did that Thursday evening. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Deacon David Luksch, from left, Father Mark Kovacik, and Father...

    Deacon David Luksch, from left, Father Mark Kovacik, and Father Jose Chicas, do a walk through to prepare for the livestream of the Holy Thursday Mass they celebrated Thursday evening at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Boulder. Religious communities around the area have turned to technology to practice their faith traditions as important holidays in most religions are affected by Colorado’s stay-at-home order. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Father Mark Kovacik, left, and Michelle Anderson, look through the...

    Father Mark Kovacik, left, and Michelle Anderson, look through the live stream camera to see if everything lines up. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Father Mark Kovacik listens to a confession from a vehicle...

    Father Mark Kovacik listens to a confession from a vehicle in the parking lot on April 10, 2020. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Father Jose Chicas listens to a confession on April 10,...

    Father Jose Chicas listens to a confession on April 10, 2020 in the parking lot of the church and catholic school. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Deacon David Luksch, left, Father Mark Kovacik, and Father Jose...

    Deacon David Luksch, left, Father Mark Kovacik, and Father Jose Chicas, do a walk through of the live streaming they did that Thursday evening. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

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Life around the world has been turned upside-down as people find themselves sequestered in order to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. And this week and month, with the religious holidays they hold, might mean the largest tests yet of this new reality Americans find themselves in.

But in Boulder County, religious institutions have heeded the warnings and guidance of health officials and have been finding ways to keep the faith while connecting from afar. During Passover Seders this week, along with Easter Sunday and Ramadan fast approaching this month, technology has become a vital tool for Jews, Christians and Muslims during this time of physical distancing.

‘Swimming in uncharted waters’

For many institutions, especially smaller ones, these problems involving isolation and the prohibition of gatherings didn’t start this week. Throughout these physical distancing measures, religious organizations have been working out ways to reach worshipers.

At Central Presbyterian Church in Longmont, things weren’t set up to seamlessly transition to online-only services and ministry. Pastor David Barker said that incidents in the past — such as an incident of arson last year — have put his congregation out of the church building, but he and other worshipers there haven’t seen anything quite like this.

“We’re kind of swimming in uncharted waters,” Barker said. “Clearly there are a lot of much bigger churches than we are that had a very robust video ministry prior to this, so they were used to putting all of their services online and periodically being able to broadcast those live.

“But that’s not something that we have done. So we’ve had to kind of find a way forward with this.”

Barker added that in talking to colleagues at other churches around the country, many have found themselves in a similar situation.

“We’ve been in contact with one another to share best practices, things that work and things that don’t work. That’s been helpful.”

For Barker and his staff and congregation, what’s worked so far has been people recording individual parts of services, with a staff member at the church patching them together. Barker records the sermon and other parts of the service involving Scripture, the music is done by the director of music at her home, and the church’s office administration pulls it all together.

“And interestingly enough, the individual who plays the organ and the piano for us is doing her pieces at her house,” Barker said. “She’s recording what she plays and then our director of music takes that and then records her singing along with it. So none of us are in the same place, we’re all doing our own thing and then it gets assembled.”

At Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Boulder, video Masses have been sent out at 6 every morning, according to Director of Administration Michelle Anderson, with Sunday Mass being a bigger ordeal, with priests and musicians all being recorded on video

“We have never done anything like this,” said Anderson. “It was a crash course in technology for us.”

And for the holy days — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday — the church is live streaming for the first time.

Father Jose Chicas listens to a confession on April 10 in the parking lot of the church and Catholic school. Members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder have had to find creative ways to have their Easter Services and conduct confessions because of the COVID-19 virus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

“Some of the bigger churches, like protestant churches, they live stream all the time,” she said. “We do not.”

Anderson added that video and audio equipment bought this past year that was set to be used by students to broadcast news to their peers has come in handy.

“The school hasn’t been trained to use it,” she said. “So we just got it hot out of the box.”

And for confessions, the church has devised a way to do it in a drive-up setting, allowing for ample space between priests and parishioners in its parking lot.

‘A holiday you spend with friends or family’

For those of the Jewish faith, Passover Seders were interrupted by physical distancing mandates this week, suspending nights that would normally see large gatherings.

Mariam Paisner, a Boulder resident who lives alone, said this year was the first she could remember that she didn’t observe the first night of Passover with others.

“It’s very lonely,” said Paisner, of her Seder experience Wednesday. “Because it’s a holiday you spend with friends or family, and Easter’s the same way, they can’t go to … church.”

But on Thursday, for the second night of Passover, she was able to connect with those from Congregation Har HaShem in a virtual Seder taking place through the teleconferencing platform Zoom.

Sitting with Seder plates and wine in front of their computer screens, members observed the tradition in a way that Samira Mehta, an associate professor of Jewish and gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said has become pretty common across all faiths during this pandemic, according to her anecdotal observations.

“There are sort of two different things that people are doing, or they’re combining them,” said Mehta. “One is to live stream their service on Facebook, the other is to do it by Zoom, and to basically send the invitation out to … their own mailing list.”

The Islamic Center of Boulder, the only mosque or Islamic center in Boulder County, has also taken part of its operations onto Zoom, offering classes on Arabic, the Quran and how to live as a Muslim. For Friday prayers, the center has streamed them live, and Tracy Smith, a member of the center’s executive committee, said WhatsApp has helped members connect.

“(There’s) also a learning curve,” said Smith. “We’re all just trying to figure that out, too, but we are well on our way to doing that.”

‘Best time for the church to be the church’

One big question for Smith and her peers at the Islamic Center of Boulder is how Ramadan will be observed this year. Normally, every night would see an iftar, a meal eaten by Muslims at sunset to break their fast.

“We always do that together,” Smith said. “We have, depending on the night, between 50 and 150 people at the mosque … and we see people that we never see except during Ramadan. It’s kind of like Easter Sunday — it’s packed.”

She said that the center is planning for things to still be locked down when Ramadan starts April 23, but if it can open up, even partially, it will try to do so.

“So we’re trying to figure out how we can break our fast together, virtually,” said Smith. “I have heard in Denver that they have tried this already, some Muslims fast on different days year-round. And so the thought is maybe we can have a Zoom iftar and just have groups of people or groups of friends or family.”

Smith said other details, such as how food will be distributed during each iftar — normally one family, person or group would sponsor each meal — have still yet to be worked out, too.

“Faith is really something that brings people together,” said Smith. “It’s very personal, but also very congregational, and especially for Muslims … we believe that praying in congregation is always better, so when we can, we do — even if it’s just with our spouse.”

This sentiment, that faith isn’t just personal, is something that Mehta echoed. What she said, and what makes physical distancing measures so uniquely challenging for religious organizations, is that communing with people and religion are often one and the same.

“I would argue, and I think this is something many, many professors of religion would argue, is that being social with each other is part of religion,” she said.

Despite this, congregations across Boulder County, such as Central Presbyterian Church, have been understanding, though at times, according to Barker, attending church virtually may be hard.

Pastor Matt Hessel at LifeBridge Church in Longmont, which has continued all its programs and ministry online in addition to making phone calls to check in on parishioners and conducting other support and charity, said that even though no one really prefers to not be together, he’s been “shocked how encouraging people have been.”

“I think this is the best time for the church to be the church,” he said.

Lifebridge Church Pastor Matt Hessel, right, and his wife Kelly Hessel livestream a Good Friday service from their kitchen table at their home in Firestone on April 10, 2020. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

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